Your browser is no longer supported

For the best possible experience using our website we recommend you upgrade to a newer version or another browser.

Your browser appears to have cookies disabled. For the best experience of this website, please enable cookies in your browser

We'll assume we have your consent to use cookies, for example so you won't need to log in each time you visit our site.
Learn more

Rail: Is innovation on track?

Early supply chain engagement, standardisation, breaking from the codes and consistency of workload emerged as the way to get more innovation into the rail industry at NCE’s latest Boosting Infrastructure Efficiency round table debate. Mark Hansford reports.

I sometimes wonder if the rail industry has got too much money?” High Speed 2 chief engineer Andrew McNaughton muses as a group of heavyweights from industry clients, designers, contractors and suppliers gathered recently to discuss ways of boosting ­efficiency in the sector.

The supposition was that with record levels of spending, guaranteed over five years, the industry was complacent about innovation. He posed the question towards the end of a round table debate that once again flushed out the incontrovertible truth that the industry can and must do more to innovate.

As structural engineering specialist AKTII business development director Gerry O’Brien succinctly put it: “The rail industry is incredibly challenging because of its scale. But it is a sign of madness in someone who does things the same way over and over again and expects a different outcome.”

What’s stopping it? The buck quickly stopped with the clients, with the round table once again highlighting the vital need for the supply chain to be engaged much earlier in projects.

“The driver for successful innovation in all the case studies we looked at was a response to need, not a push from a new technology”

Steve Denton, Parsons Brinckerhoff

“We need to do things quicker, cheaper,” accepted Mabey managing director Mark Rooney. “We as a company believe we are innovative. But as a supplier what we are innovating may not be part of the solution for the client, as we are so far removed from the on-site problem we don’t necessarily know what the question is.”

Simon Wright, recently infrastructure director at the Olympic Delivery Authority and now project development director at Network Rail, agreed that more needed to be done to get suppliers involved.

“Are we spending enough time on that?” he asked. “Absolutely not. We can be very smart in isolation but we are better in collaboration. Nothing beats close working relations where you are sharing risks between client and contractor.”

Parsons Brinckerhoff (PB) technical director Steve Denton is well briefed on what it takes to bring innovation into play, having authored a book on the subject last year. PB’s Exploring Innovation report found a direct link between close collaboration and successful innovations.

Nagging question

“One of the nagging questions that drove us to do this work was to understand better why we see hot spots of innovation,” he said. “The driver for successful innovation in all the case studies we looked at was a response to need, not a push from a new technology.”

“What we saw was that if you want to innovate for a client you must have a really deep understanding of their needs and that doesn’t happen at arms’ length,” he said.

For O’Brien, it’s cultural. “The problem seems quite well understood and documented. But how well will it be filtered down?” he asked. “It has to become a cultural thing.”

The highways industry leads here, noted Costain group technical and operations director Alan Kay.

“It is a sign of madness in someone who does things the same way over and over again and expects a different outcome”

Gerry O’Brien, AKTII

“The highways industry, and in particular the Highways Agency, leads in engaging contractors early in the process. This allows innovation opportunities to be maximised,” he said.

“To date in rail, the contractor has been engaged at a later stage thereby reducing the opportunity for innovation,” he added.

“However, there are signs of change, with Network Rail’s collaborative working initiative and London Underground’s procurement strategy for the Bank

Station upgrade, which invited innovation and offered reimbursement for ideas adopted from the unsuccessful tenderers.”

To be fair, it’s not just the rail industry that is playing catch up. Said Heathrow Airport programme director Phil Wilbraham: “The real challenge is to get ideas out of the supply chain at the right time. As a client we have got to decide when the right time is and then how to get them. I don’t know the answer, but I know the ideas are there.”

Wilbraham was confident that his operation, with its single focus, is getting better at sourcing innovation, and the question to McNaughton from Aecom Europe chief executive Steve Morriss was whether High Speed 2 would also benefit from that same singularity of purpose.

“If you’ve got a single purpose client you can have that focus from the top,” he agreed. “It’s what Crossrail can do and it’s what we can do.”
McNaughton is certainly keen that his project does not get hampered by traditional rail industry approaches, where a history of piecemeal upgrades and additions to the network forces bespoke solutions. “For us it is a dead simple problem. We are starting from a clean sheet of paper. Here I want standardisation,” he said.

Standardisation is key

Morriss agreed on standardisation being key. “We’ve looked across the world at who does construction at high quality cheapest and fastest. Spain was the answer,” he said. “And standardisation was the reason, so we have taken that and applied it in the UK,” he stated. “The best chance we have as an industry of innovating is to tackle it together.”

And McNaughton is looking firmly at the supply chain to deliver that standardisation. “We have only achieved it once before and it cost half as much. A lot of it is driven by the client and also by suppliers explaining in capital letters to the client what is missing,” he said. “If you are Easyjet you don’t go to

Boeing saying ‘add a bit to the wings’.”

Balfour Beatty Rail head of strategic development Richard Graham said the industry was ready: “Engineers can respond to that challenge, once the challenge is set.”

But standardisation is hard to achieve when much of what you are working on is not new, a point made by Mabey director of engineering Tom Williams.

“People are more open to innovation and change on things that are new,” he said, a view most in the room concurred with. But much of the UK’s infrastructure is not new-build. It is upgrades, complex, space-constrained upgrades to existing infrastructure, built and maintained to existing codes and standards. It was a huge frustration to the contractors in the room.

Said Kay: “We are a slave to codes.”

“Actually, we want to make a profit. And actually, the only way to make a profit is to apply a degree of innovation in everything we do”

John Patch, Roger Bullivant

Bam Nuttall operations director Adrian Savory cited his firm’s work on London Underground’s Tottenham Court Road and Victoria Station Upgrades.

There, the complexities of the jobs made standardisation very difficult to achieve.

“We thought there would be an opportunity to standardise. But the reality is they are two very different projects, with different needs and differing geotechnical conditions and existing station layouts. They called for bespoke solutions. So while we had a decent pipeline of work - about £750M over the two schemes - it was very difficult to standardise.”

He did note that once again, the Highways Agency is the client that makes it easiest, with early contractor involvement. “We had two contracts that were similar in a way - Great Barford and Caxton Improvement. And there we delivered significant savings on the second project as we were engaged early enough and working with one designer we developed optimum schemes with standardisation featuring strongly.”

The issue of savings - and how they are shared - drew sharp words from Roger Bullivant director John Patch. Speaking up for the suppliers, he was clear on the motivation he needed: “Nobody has yet mentioned profit,” he said. “Actually, we want to make a profit. And actually, the only way to make a profit is to apply a degree of innovation in everything we do.”

Denton agreed with Patch; the need for all parties to see a return on investment was one of the key factors identified in research for Exploring Innovation.

Said Denton: “In every story, we saw that as an innovation progressed along the innovation pathway everyone needed to see a realistic prospect of a commensurate return, or it stalled,” he said.

“That return might not be a direct financial one, for example it could be reputational. But what matters is that if you look at the points that innovation stalls, and we saw this time and time again, it’s the point when the investors in an innovation, be they individuals, companies or client organisations, no longer saw a realistic prospect of a return.”

Building trust

Trust is also key, said Patch. He cited clients - largely private sector ones - who have agreed to ringfence Bullivant’s overheads and profit in order to collaboratively focus on how to reduce the actual project costs. “And that’s when we get down to brass tacks,” he said.

The debate also tackled the type of innovation that makes for good innovation.

“There is glamour in disruptive innovation,” said Denton. “But as a business it is rarely a sound investment to try to create it. Progressive innovation can deliver huge benefits and should not be undervalued,” he said.

Denton had just admonished Wilbraham for downplaying just such innovation at play when it comes to resurfacing his airport’s runways. Wilbraham had explained how the length of runway resurfaced in one night on recent work on Heathrow’s north runway had increased from 70m to 82m as the project progressed, and that the next programme of work on the south runway would be targeting 110m. “That is gentle improvement,” Wilbraham had said.

But said Denton: “I think you’re underplaying it. That’s not gentle improvement, that’s a 50% improvement.”

So who’s stopping it?

Ultimately, said Williams, there are two blockers: decision making and funding. “Who’s got the money and who makes the decisions?” he asked. “We think that there is enough intelligence around to see how we would do it differently.”

What all agreed was that consistency of workload was key.

“The Jubilee Line Extension was a great success,” recalled Kay. “But then the lack of work meant the skills dried up. It was a similar story with the Channel Tunnel Rail Link. Again there was no continuity. Hopefully, now with Crossrail followed by the Thames Tunnel, Crossrail 2 and High Speed 2 we can avoid that.

“If there is a shortage of rail work we have got to look at how to keep the skills consistent. It’s got to be planned out. The industry alone can’t keep that continuity.”

Patch agreed: “If we had consistency and continuity of work then you would have innovation as you will have people thinking about the next job and how to do it better and how to make more money. As that’s what we’re here to do,” he said.

Have your say

You must sign in to make a comment

Please remember that the submission of any material is governed by our Terms and Conditions and by submitting material you confirm your agreement to these Terms and Conditions. Please note comments made online may also be published in the print edition of New Civil Engineer. Links may be included in your comments but HTML is not permitted.